Hermès Eaux de Cologne

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(Image “Megumi” by Loretta Lux.)

Jean-Claude Ellena’s work for Hermès is sorted into lines. They are as much clusters of flankers as sub-brands. They provide as many doors into the world of Hermès as possible and serve to inculcate the buyer to the taste and values of Hermès’s style of luxury. Sophisticated? Cynical? Both, really.

I avoid writing about perfume as a matter of opinion for a number of reasons, which I can summarize as, who cares about anyone’s opinion of a perfume? There are more interesting ways to talk about perfume. Still, by attempting to shape sensibility and taste, Hermès implicitly elevate opinion.  

The Jardin fragrances are watercolor eaux de toilette with a moist, fruity-vegetal tone. They are an entry level to the conservative allure of the brand, balancing modesty with identifiability. They serve the same function as the Hermès scarf did 50 years ago: affordable entry to the world of Hermès. 

Ellena took Eau des Merveilles, which Hermès launched just before his arrival, and turned it into the most flankerly of the Hermès perfumes. Eau, Elixir, Parfum, Ambre…des Merveilles. Similar names, even more similar bottles. They become hard to distinguish even before you even smell the perfumes. Ditto 24 Faubourg. There are so many versions it’s tough to know if they are separate perfumes or the same perfume with differently decorated bottles. (See 24, Faubourg Édition Limitée Jeu Des Omnibus Et Dames Blanches.  Yes, really.)

The various Terres d’Hermès for boys, Jours d’Hermès for girls and Voyages d’Hermès get the Hermès name on the shelves of Sephora, department stores and online stores. 

The Hermessence line is the highest priced line of the brand and accomplishes the dual goals of assuring  in-boutique exclusivity and buffering Hermès against the niche barbarians at the gate.

The ‘classic’ perfumes of the brand range from from Guy Robert’s Doblis to Olivia Giacobetti’s Hiris. They serve as the pedigreed backdrop to all of the Ellena lines. The classics now all share same bottle with differently-colored labels, forming a line after the fact.

Ellena has also produced a line of Eaux de Cologne for Hermès, and here is where my opinion leads me. Ellena released a pair of eaux de cologne in 2009 (Eau de Gentiane Blanche and Eau de Pamplemouse Rose) and another pair in 2013 (Eau de Narcisse Bleu and Eau de Mandarine Ambrée).

Each pair is an innovation on the traditional EDC, framing the genre as both cool and dry (Gentiane Blanche, Narcisse Bleu) and warm and snug (Pamplemousse Rose, Mandarine Ambrée). Each pair also presents an interesting juxtaposition. Where citrus is typically seen as the bright, fresh portion of the eau de cologne, in the case of Pamplemouse Rose and Mandarine Ambrée, citrus is used to emphasize the cozy side of cologne. They reflect skin warmth and snugness. In Gentiane Blanche and Narcisse Bleu, the crispness and chill don’t come from citrus, but from herbal and leafy notes.

Gentiane Blanche is rooty and bitter/powdery on the axis of iris root and violet leaf.  Narcisse Bleu is green and and milky, more stem and crisp flower. The distinctions between the two are pronounced when compared side by side, but their similarities are more apparent than their differences. They share a matte, cool tone and a blue-greenness that seems neither watery nor grassy, but suggests a dusky hue. They both find the crisp tone that defines a cologne, but achieve it with vegetal tones and without the musky finish a classical Eau de Cologne has. 

While they are both reinventions of the eau de cologne, they also play with the bone-dry, citrus/violet leaf hiss of Grey Flannel. They smell similar to Grey Flannel (especially Gentiane Blanche) without seeming derivative. Grey Flannel’s violet leaf and wood dryness is an interesting basis for reconsidering the EDC. Jean-Claude Ellena’s infamous minimalism and rigorous editing find perfect application in these two colognes that capture the qualities of the genre while sidestepping all the clichés.

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